Nearly five feet tall, the Whooping Crane is North America's tallest bird, and one of her most endangered. But crane numbers have been rising in recent years, and this year, there's more in Texas than ever recorded before. Discover the beauty of the WHOOPERS...
They're graceful in flight; colorful markings identify them as North American Whooping Cranes, and they travel over 2,500 miles each fall to settle for the winter in the wetlands of the Texas coast. Along with them come crane-watchers from all across the continent, making the annual migration of the noble birds and their many fans a major event for the communities of Rockport/Fulton, Texas, nestled against the Aransas Bay just up the coast from Corpus Christi.
This is clearly crane territory, and the community gladly embraces the relationship with the endangered birds as it has proven to be a mutually beneficial partnership. For the birds, there's the protected sanctuary of the Aransas Wildlife Refuge nearby. For the community, there are thousands of annual visitors who have come to see the cranes, benefiting the winter economy of the region.
Perhaps to fully appreciate the whoopers you should understand some of their history. When the great plains were drained to make way for commercial agriculture, the birds were forced to find new nesting grounds. Adding to the declining whooper population in the early 1920s was the massive amount of hunting of the birds by sportsmen looking for trophies. The average wingspan of the crane is around 6-7 feet, a real prize for bird hunters of the time. By 1941 the crane population of North America had to declined to just 21 birds.
In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge by presidential order, but it was almost too late. One small flock remained and lived a non-migratory life in Louisiana while another small flock spent the winters in Texas and summers in Canada. Half of the Louisiana flock was killed by a tropical storm in 1940 and the other birds of the flock slowly died in the proceeding years. Only the birds of Texas/Canadian flock were left.
Since the bird was listed as an endangered species and thanks in part to Operation Migration, whooping crane numbers have slowly recovered. At the turn of the new millennium, about 144 birds were known in North America, and the most recent count puts their numbers at 188 cranes.
Texas parks and Wildlife biologists are reporting the big birds started arriving this year in October and the overall number of birds nesting at ANWR is larger than ever before.
Seeing the Cranes
According to United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the birds nest along a 35 mile stretch of the central Texas coast, largely congregating in the Aransas NWR and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Management Area and State Park. Since only the Aransas facility is accessible by public road, you best bet of self touring would start at the refuge's visitor's center.
Perhaps the preferred method of viewing these beautiful birds is by boat, and there are many crane tour boats that operate out of the Rockport/Fulton area, including Capn' Ted's Whooping Crane Tours. For a reasonable fee, you can float out to the nesting grounds for a from-the-water view of these wild birds in their natural habitat.
The winter season is mating season for the cranes, and the prancing and leaping of the male cranes is a show to behold when courting season is in session.
Rockport is a grand weekend destination whether you have come to see the birds or are just looking for a coastal getaway. The fishing is great in Aransas and Copano Bay, and offshore fishing is available in nearby Port Aransas. And if you enjoy fresh Texas seafood, the region is one of the best to find it, cooked up a dozen different ways.